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FAST, SIMPLE: A Quick Look at the Two Congressional Election Bills

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[Image courtesy of wikimedia]

With Election Day almost three weeks behind us, Congress is preparing to return to Washington for a lame duck session which may or may not include consideration of two new election reform bills:

+ S. 3635, the "Fair,Accurate, Secure, and Timely Voting Act of 2012", or FAST, sponsored by Democrats Chris Coons of Delaware and Mark Warner of Virginia; and

+ H.R. 6591, the "Streamlined and Improved Methods at Polling Locations and Early Voting
Act" or SIMPLE, introduced by Democrat George Miller of California and 74 co-sponsors.

There's a lot to dig into in both of these bills, but a quick look reveals three very interesting issues.

First, the two bills adopt different approaches. The Senate FAST Act establishes a competitive grant program for states designed to "(1) provide incentives for States to invest in practices and technology that are designed to expedite voting at the polls; and (2) provide incentives for States to simplify voter registration." The House SIMPLE Act would require federal guidelines on early voting and reducing wait times and would require states to submit contingency plans for both. Consistent with these approaches, the Senate bill includes authorization language to fund the grant program while the House bill is silent on funding.

Second, the bills take very different tacks with regard to the Election Assistance Commission. The House bill is designed as an amendment to the Help America Vote Act, and as such would require the EAC to issue the SIMPLE standards on early voting and reduction of unreasonable wait times, then review and approve state contingency plans. The Senate bill, on the other hand, doesn't mention the EAC at all but instead makes the FAST grants a program of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Perhaps most importantly, both bills - despite their different approaches - make data about election administration a key part of reform. The House SIMPLE bill lists several pieces of data states must consider in drafting their plans, while the Senate FAST bill would require states to adopt "performance measures" for improving election administration as part of the grant approval and monitoring process.

It's too early to tell what will happen with legislation of this kind, and with Congress likely focused on the "fiscal cliff" and Hurricane Sandy cleanup I'd be surprised if we get any action before the new Congress convenes in January. It's also worth noting that the sponsors and co-sponsors of both bills appear to be predominantly (if not exclusively) Democrats; the GOP House majority and Senate minority are likely to have very different views - and may even question the wisdom of a (re)new(ed) federal role in election administration.

Nevertheless, while federal action (if any) on the problems identified on Election Day may not be FAST or SIMPLE, at least we now have some idea what the parameters of any forthcoming debate may be.

As always, stay tuned ...

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